Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Chosen but free?-2

That’s the argument. It is easy to lose sight of this because Geisler moves so quickly and frequently between his Scriptural citations and his governing assumptions.

Another favorite objection of Geisler’s is that Calvinism denies the love of God as an essential attribute of God. For if God does not love everyone, then love cannot be an essential attribute of God. But there are several serious problems with this objection:

i) A universalist could deploy the same objection against Geisler’s own position. How can God be loving if he sends anyone to hell?

ii) If God is unloving unless our Lord made atonement for every fallen man, then God is unloving unless our Lord made atonement for every fallen angel.

iii) Geisler is assuming an extensive rather than intensive definition of love. What is more loving: to make salvation possible for more men, or to make salvation certain for fewer?

iv) Love implies hate. Love implies a loathing of love’s opposite. If you love a child, it is only natural to despise a child-molester.

v) Geisler destroys the gratuity of grace. He destroys the merciful nature of mercy. We’re not talking about the general attribute of divine love, but God’s love of the ungodly, of the antithesis of God. Grace is arbitrary. Mercy is discretionary. Were they necessary, they would cease to be gracious and merciful. The mystery is not that God doesn't love sinners, one and all, but that God would love any sinner at all.

Geisler tries to get around this by saying that the OT word for "mercy" means loving-kindness (88, n18). But this appeal is faulty on a couple of grounds:

a) It commits the word=concept fallacy. The point at issue is not the meaning of different words, but the meaning of different concepts.

b) In the OT, God’s mercy or loving-kindness has general reference to the covenant community.

vi) The fact that God has an attribute to a maximal degree does not entail that God must manifest an attribute to a maximal degree. God is just, but God does not exact justice on everyone; God is omnipotent, but God does not do everything of which he’s capable.

Geisler’s position resembles Neoplatonic emanationism. On this view, the world is the necessary efflux of the divine essence. And that, of course, is pantheistic.

vii) Frankly, it is hard to see how God is all-loving to the damned. Consigning sinners to hell is a paralogical expression of love, although it is a logical expression of justice.

Geisler uses "love" and "goodness" interchangeably, such that a restriction on divine love entails a restriction on divine goodness. But this commits a fallacy of equivocation. For goodness is a broader concept. There are many goods. Divine love is one, but so is the justice of God. Because "love" and "goodness" are not synonymous, a restriction on the former does not entail a restriction on the latter.

Geisler uses the illustration of a farmer who finds three boys drowning in a pond where he put a no-swimming sign. What would we think if the farmer let them drown?

But the question is whether this illustration is all that analogous to a sinner’s standing before God. In fact, the illustration is successful to the degree that it is subversive of justice. To begin with, I doubt a lot of readers regard it as sinful for a few boys to go swimming in the local pond, even if they’re trespassing on private property. This seems like good clean fun, a perfectly natural, all-American thing for boys to do. We would fault the farmer for being so small-minded and legalistic in the first place. We also expect adults to protect and defend the young.

But when we’re talking about a sinner’s relation to God, we generally have in mind a grown-up, not a child.

I’ll substitute a very different illustration. A few years ago there was a widely televised bank robbery. The robbers were attired in full-body armor with paramilitary rifles. They got into a full-scale shoot-out with the police. They had the cops out-gunned. Finally the police rearmed and took down both suspects. One bled to death at the scene. His family sued, accusing the police of letting the suspect bleed to death.

To judge by the footage, the police did, indeed, stall the clock until the suspect bled out. Speaking for myself, I regard that as poetic justice. He got exactly what he deserved. What goes around comes around, and he had it coming in spades. He had been firing away at policemen and innocent by-standers, trying to kill anyone who strayed between the cross-hairs. By all means let him bleed to death. His guilt was never in doubt. It was broadcast live. The whole world was his jury. He was not entitled to medical treatment. He died as he had tried to make others die. Let him who lives by the sword, die by the sword.

Geisler faults Calvinism for saying that "God does not do all he can do to save all. Thus, it cannot escape the conclusion that God is not even as good as a finite fallible human father who would do everything he could to save all his drowning children" (260).

This objection betrays an incapacity for self-criticism. For a universalist would say the same thing about Geisler’s God. Geisler believes in hell. So even on Geisler’s view, God does not do all he can do to save all.

What if his son were drowning because he jumped off a bridge? What if he were unwilling to be fished out of the water? What if he were suicidal? If his son were clinically depressed because his brain chemistry was out of whack, would Geisler not be prepared to have him committed, against his will--if need be--for treatment to restore the imbalance?

Geisler says that freedom cannot be forced, but he confuses freewill with ill-will. The sinner, by being a sinner, is out of his mind. He is not thinking straight. When God renews the will of the elect, he restores them to a right state of mind. Call it coercion if you choose, but this is reparative.

It is an abuse of language to say that it is morally "repugnant," to put something back in proper working order, so that it can function once again as it originally designed to function. You may have to force a broken lock. The key no longer works. The tumblers were jammed in place. But once you fix the lock, it turns without effort.

Geisler is guilty of indulging in a number of elementary misrepresentations of Calvinism:

i) He equates hyper-Calvinism with supralapsarianism. But there is no logical connection between the two. Hyper-Calvinism is the view that a preacher ought not urge the unregenerate to repent and believe, whereas the supra view assigns the reprobate a theodicean role inasmuch as God foreordained the fall to manifest his mercy and justice. An infra can be a Hyper-Calvinist. Or is his beef only with the supra version?

ii) He says that according to Calvinism, "God’s predetermination is done independently of his foreknowledge of human free acts. God operates with such unapproachable sovereignty that his choices are made with total disregard for the choices of mortal men...What is more...God determines to save whomever he wishes regardless of whether they choose to believe or not" (47).

This characterization is, at best, extremely misleading. For it can foster the misimpression that predestination keeps some believers out of heaven, as if there were a certain number of men who choose to believe in Christ, but God chooses to damn them irrespective of their foreseen faith.

But the true Reformed view is that, apart from grace, there would be no believers. There are no believers to foreknow apart from grace. There are only sinners.

Geisler goes on to say this, but first impressions stick, and if you distort a position at the outset, that is what many readers are likely to remember. You have built up such a bias in the reader’s mind that your parenthetical asides bounce right off.

ii) Geisler defines spiritual inability as "the elimination of all human ability to understand or respond to God" (57), and counters that "if depravity has destroyed man’s ability to know good from evil and to choose the good over the evil, then it would have destroyed man’s ability to sin" (62).

But this is an unrecognizable caricature of Calvinism. To begin with, Calvinism limits spiritual inability to the ability to do any spiritual good. That’s why it’s called "spiritual" inability.

Calvinism doesn’t deny, but rather affirms, that by virtue of common grace, God preserves a remnant of common sense and common decency in the reprobate and unregenerate.

Geisler also slurs over key distinctions: there’s a difference between knowing good and doing good, understanding and responding. An agent can know right, but do wrong.

The essential point of spiritual inability is that the reprobate and unregenerate are ill-disposed and indisposed to repent of their sin and believe in Christ. Trust is incompatible with fear and loathing. A sinner qua sinner cannot love a hanging Judge.

iii) Geisler denies unconditional election. But he accuses some Calvinists of inconsistency on this point. He deems it inconsistent from someone who affirms that salvation is by faith alone to stipulate certain conditions in order to be saved (68).

Yet what Calvinism affirms is not that salvation is unconditional, but election. Again, we are not saved by faith alone. We are justified by faith alone. Geisler is blurring distinct categories.

For his part, Geisler believes that "foreknowledge" is a factor in election. He appeals to Rom 8:29 and 1 Pet 1:2 to justify his view. He knows that a Calvinist will render "proginosko" as "to choose beforehand," but he denies this on the grounds that in many of its NT occurrences, "ginosko" doesn't mean "to choose," while in most of its OT occurrences, "yada" doesn’t mean "to choose." He also adds that the verb "to choose" is sometimes used of persons who are not of the elect.

But this whole line of argument is flawed on several grounds:

i) "Ginosko" and "proginosko" are not synonymous. There is a reason for the prefix. It is an idiomatic expression for prior choice.

ii) Ironically, Geisler is resorting to the same statistical analysis that homosexuals resort to when they try to prove that in asking Lot to let them "know" his house guests," the Sodomites were not talking about homosexual rape. Can't you just hear these fine, upstanding citizens explain their predicament to the two angels?

"Now, looky here. This has all been a big misunderstandin'. Don't take it personal. We knows ya did't git a whole lotta time to brush up on that thar conversational Hebrah afore ya come down to these them parts. But we was just a-trying to be right neighborly, that's all. Somethin' musta got lost in translation. "To know" just means "to know," ya know. We're powerful sorry if'n we ruffled yer feathers. Nuttin' to git so all fired up about.

It should be unnecessary to point out that usage is contextual. Just as "yada" means "to copulate" in sexual situations, "yada" means "to choose" in covenantal contexts (e.g., Gen 18:19; Exod 33:17; 1 Sam 2:12; Ps 1:6; 18:43; Prov 9:10; Jer 1:5; Hos 13:5; Amos 3:2), while proginosko means "to choose beforehand" (Acts 2:23; Rom 8:29; 11:2; 1 Peter 1:2,20).

iii) Again, no one is arguing that the verb "to choose" is a technical term for eternal election. That is a question of context, as well as a theological construct from a number of different lines of exegetical evidence. As a systematic theologian, Geisler ought to have enough sophistication to appreciate the nature of theological method.

Geisler cites some verses of Scripture to prove that grace is not irresistible. But this flounders on equivocation. There is a difference between words and concepts. There is also a difference between dogmatic usage and ordinary usage. The fact that the reprobate resist the preceptive will of God (e.g., Mt 23:37; Lk 7:30; Act 7:51) is perfectly consonant with irresistible grace. Geisler even seems to admit as much in a footnote (97, n36), yet he choose to disregard that distinction in the body of the text.

He goes on to allege that "what extreme [!] Calvinists want to do is to avoid the repugnant image of a reluctant candidate being forced into the fold or captured into the kingdom...The problem with the idea of irresistible grace...is that there is no informed consent for the treatment" (99).

Geisler sounds like an ACLU lawyer who thinks it is better for mentally ill street people to freeze to death rather than having their "rights" violated. By contrast, the Calvinist sees nothing wrong with having a deranged sinner involuntarily committed to the grace of God. A sinner is like mental patient off his meds, or a cancer patient with a brain tumor. What irresistible grace does is to restore him to a right frame of mind, to cure him of his religious paranoia and criminal insanity. How is that morally "repugnant?"

This is, indeed, where we come to a theological crossroads. For a Calvinist, the magnitude of God’s grace is manifest in the fact that God saves the unwilling, that God converts his worst enemies. A man who finds this "repugnant" has failed to take the full measure of the Gospel.

In chapter 8, Geisler levels a number of stock objections to Calvinism: it exculpates man, implicates God, invites universalism, undermines assurance, undermines evangelism, and undermines prayer. Of these, only the first two are at all impressive.

On these two points, a great deal could be said, but since Geisler doesn’t say very much, neither will I:

i) Calvinism derives its doctrine of God from the revelation of God. Only God can tell us what he’s like and what he does. So these arm-chair objections, whatever their intuitive force, are castles in the air.

ii) In adapting his own illustration of a Skinner-box, I think we have some idea of how an action can be both certain and uncoerced. At least, I have presented a model for my own position, unlike Geisler.

iii) Geisler has no coherent alternative, for he falls back on self-determinism, but self-determinism is only a pseudonym for character-determinism. The agent may choose according to his character-traits, but he doesn’t choose his character-traits.

Regarding universalism, Geisler says "it does not suffice to claim that God’s justice rightly condemns those who do not believe, since even faith is a gift from God that he could give to all if he wanted to do so" (139).

But this is a non-sequitur. It is not simply that they disbelieve. They disbelieve because they are sinners. Yes, it is within his power to make everyone believe, but he is just to withhold his grace, for they do not deserve his grace; indeed, they deserve his wrath. In saving some, but not all, he shows to all that salvation is by grace alone.

Regarding the love of God, he says that "any diminution of God’s love will sooner or later eat away at one’s confidence in God’s benevolence...A partially loving God is less than ultimately good...At first blush, one is impressed with a God that supposedly loves him more than others...But upon further reflection, one cannot help but wonder why, if this God is so loving, he does not so love the world...If one allows this to gnaw at his mind long enough, it can turn him from being a particularist into being a universalist" (140-41).

To begin with, is this a logical objection, or a psychological objection? For example, Geisler also says that hell has occasioned unbelief or even atheism (140, n.5). But is that a good reason for a Christian to deny the doctrine of hell?

More to the point, Geisler once again misses the mystery and magnitude of grace. The amazing thing is that God loves any sinner, not that he doesn’t love every sinner. Once again, a Christian who fails to take this to heart is still nibbling around the corners and edges of the Gospel. Geisler’s gospel is a marginal Gospel, a faith in the fringe, the trimmings, the tassels--the circumference, but not the center.

The difference between a Reformed Christian and every other kind of Christian is not that the Calvinist is a better Christian, but that he alone has a real appreciation for the quality of grace by which he and every other Christian is saved. If a Christian had only one lesson to learn in life, this would be it. He should spend as much time as it takes for this to really sink in. And then he should remind himself on a daily basis.

Regarding evangelism, Geisler says that the following propositions undermine evangelism: "First of all, God does not love the whole world in a redemptive sense, but only the elect; Second, Christ only died for the elect, not the world. Third, no one has the faith to believe unless God gives it to him. Fourth, God has willed to give faith only to a select few, 'the frozen chosen.' Fifth, when God’s power works on the hearts of the unbelievers he wants to save, there is absolutely nothing they can do to refuse it. God’s power is irresistible" (141).

Regarding objections one and two, this would only be a disincentive to evangelism if the elect were confined to a particular part of the world, if we knew which part that was, and if it had already been evangelized--once and for all time. But since the distribution of the elect is worldwide through space and time, we believe in global evangelism. Perfectly logical.

Regarding objections three through five, even Geisler, in opposition to the Pelagian heresy, believes that grace is a necessary precondition for faith. But why is resistible grace a greater incentive to evangelism than irresistible grace? Shouldn’t a missionary be encouraged by the fact that God has made an offer which at least some of his hearers cannot refuse?

Incidentally, Calvinism has no received position on the relative number of the select. So the business about a "chosen few" has no official standing. The fact that they use this as a term of abuse, even though it goes back to the very lips of our Lord says a lot about their character--and it isn't pretty.

Finally, Geisler says that "if we believe God will do these things even if we do not pray, then there is no need for prayer" (142). True enough. But seeing as Reformed theology exalts prayer as a divinely ordained means of grace, Geisler is drawing a valid conclusion from a false premise.

This is such an elementary misstatement of the opposing position that it introduces a note of intellectual frivolity into his treatment. Does he read Reformed theology with any real understanding? Or is he so hostile that his eyes move over the page without grasping the content?

In appendix four, Geisler defends the principle of self-determination against several objections.

To the charge that self-causation is inapplicable to a human agent, Geisler says that this objection only pushes the problem back a step, for by that line of reasoning would be equally inapplicable to God. But there are two problems with this reply:

i) It erases the Creator/creature distinction. What makes a creature a creature is that it is an object as well as subject of causation. Even secondary agents or second-causes have a primary cause, outside themselves. As a Thomist, you’d think that Geisler would have a handle on that distinction.

It does no good to distinguish between actor and action, for in the case of a creaturely agent, even though he may be the immediate source of his own actions, but he is not the source of his own nature or character-traits or faculties or social conditioning, from whence his actions arise. A lawn may be watered by a sprinkler, but a sprinkler is not a wellspring.

ii) The category of self-causation is, indeed, inapplicable to God. For God is a timeless and self-sufficient agent.

To the charge that self-determination undermines divine grace and foreknowledge, Geisler says that "the answer lies in the fact that God knows--for sure (infallibly) precisely how everyone will use his freedom" (184).

This doesn’t answer the question, but begs the question. It merely paraphrases the original problem. If the agent is free to do otherwise, in the libertarian sense, then how can his choice be known before it is consummated? What is there to know? If the outcome is truly indeterminate, then the answer could either be and equally be yes or no.

Geisler says that, by their own admission, the priority of regeneration to faith is more of a logical consequence of the Reformed belief-system than it is of direct exegesis. But this is misleading, and he quotes no one to that effect.

To begin with, it is possible to infer one doctrine from another. Even if, for the sake of argument, a doctrine had no direct Scriptural support, yet if it were logically deducible from another Biblically attested doctrine, then it, too, would be Biblical. Geisler, as one who puts such stock in human reason, is in no position to object.

Likewise, a doctrine may be a theological construct, deriving from several different lines of evidence. The Trinity is a classic case in point. So is the Hypostatic Union. The priority of regeneration to faith is, in part, an inference from the necessity of regeneration in the first place, which is, in turn, complementary to the Scriptural evidence of spiritual inability.

In an attempt to topple Calvinism with one blow, Geisler says that "at the root of extreme [!] Calvinism is a radical form of voluntarism, which affirms that something is right simply because God willed it, rather than God willing it because it is right in accordance with his own unchangeable nature" (244).

The first thing to take note of is that Geisler does not cite a single representative statement from any historic Reformed creed to back up his sweeping claim. He only quotes from one source, and that’s a popular contemporary writer. Even if his interpretation of Piper happened to be correct, it would not go any distance toward proving this to be the mainstream position in Reformed tradition, rather than the private opinion of one Calvinist in particular.

It is also fairly obvious that Geisler is misrepresenting the very source he quotes. Piper does not drive a wedge between God’s will and God’s moral attributes. Rather, Piper drives a wedge between the will of God and the will of sinners. Not only has Geisler failed to lay his axe at the root of the Reformed faith, he hasn’t even succeeded in trimming a few twigs.

Geisler also has an appendix (8) on the Canons of Dort. In his commentary he tries at every turn to split the difference between Calvinism and Arminianism. In this respect his method is more Romish than Reformed, and he might be more at home with the Canons of Trent.

He cues off by saying that the Canons of Dort are "widely considered to be a modern origin of extreme Calvinism" (220). I would love to see the documentation for this "widely" held belief.

He makes a number of revealing remarks along the way. We are told that the atonement was "necessitated" by the love of God (221). So man's will is free, but God's will is constrained. And here he keeps telling us that love cannot be coerced or forced. But, apparently, God has no choice in the matter.

He says that even though faith is a gift, it can be refused. I often wonder if this isn't colored by a misplaced metaphor. The opponent of Calvinism seems to have the mental image of grace as though it were a Christmas present or birthday gift that you could return to the store if it didn't fit. On this view, grace is a concrete thing, outside our body, like a bottle of medicine. We must open wide and swallow to get it inside us and start to do its thing. To think this way is to get carried away with the incidental implications of picture-language. You might suppose that someone with Geisler's background would be a bit more astute.

There is also something inherently twisted and vicious about protestations against the image of God "forcing" himself upon us, or doing us "violence." This is a pretty prickly and thankless attitude to take towards the saving grace of God--as though God must be kept at arms' length. Men like Geisler want as little of God as possible--just enough, but not too much. If God wanted as little do to with them as they want with him, they'd all be burning in hell.

Geisler next says that God's grace is only effective with the willing, but not with the unwilling. This is, of course, a disguised tautology. Grace is effective when it's effective, but ineffective the rest of the time. It works when it works, except when it doesn't And that reduces to the admission that grace is impotent, for grace does not effect a state of grace. At this point you wonder why it is that men like Geisler even bother to keep up appearances.

He also says that faith is "the means through which we receive his grace." Okay, so faith is not a gift of God after all. If faith is the means through which we receive the grace of God, then there is nothing gracious about faith itself. It is, at most, a natural means to a gracious end. But if you can run the race on your own steam, who needs a nudge of grace to cross the finish line? Once again, grace is just a cosmetic word, while faith is the deal-maker or deal-breaker. Man, not God, is in the driver's seat.

With reference of the offer of the Gospel, he says that God "would never hold persons responsible for actions they could not have avoided" (224). The persuasiveness of this claim depends on what mental image is triggered by the claim. It is especially plausible when our imagination conjures up some physical impediment.

But if we shift to a moral impediment, our intuitions begin to waver. Take the command, honor your father and mother. But suppose a child doesn't love his parents? Suppose he resents them? Supposed, despite their best efforts, he's a spoiled, spiteful brat. He can't bring himself to think well of them. If he were a better man, he'd treat them better, but that's the problem. Surely this is more than a bare hypothetical. We all know grown children just like this. Is an incorrigible ingrate not responsible for being ungrateful?

By Geisler's logic, the more hard-hearted you are, the less culpable you are. To be purely evil is to be purely innocent, for you are incapable of bettering yourself. The Devil must be a devoted disciple of Geisler's value-system!

Along the same lines, Geisler assures the reader that "a sincere promise to save all who believe implies that Christ died for all and that all are capable of believing this promise to be saved" (226).

"Implies" is a strong word. But where's the logic in saying that a sincere promise to save all who believe implies that Christ died for all?" All it implies, surely, is that all believers will be saved. How is it insincere to promise salvation to all who will believe except on condition that it also extends to all who will not believe? You call that logic? Did it take Norman Geisler two earned doctorates to come up with that equation?

Suppose a florist were to advertise a Mother's Day sale, or for Valentine's? Would his offer be insincere unless he not only stocked enough roses for every prospective customer, but for everyone who had no intention of taking him up on the offer?

But what about making the provision commensurate with the promise? Well, there is one class of men who will never buy flowers for a woman--whether their wife or mother or girlfriend. And that is the misogynist. Actually, it's highly unlikely that your average, all-American misogynist has a wife or girlfriend, although he might have a mother--unless he put a pillow over her nose to collect on the life insurance. Tell me, now. Is his offer only sincere if every misogynist is potentially amendable to buying a bouquet of roses for some woman or another? Or is it Geisler's view that no sweetheart should have a dozen roses unless every sweetheart has a dozen roses?

Remember, too, that according to Geisler, God cannot make anyone willing against his will. So our poor florist must hit upon some scheme to make every unwilling buyer "willable" without making him willing. Does that make a whole lot of sense to you? Perhaps, though, Dr. Geisler is working with some version of Buddhist logic. Maybe he should rename his good "Chosen, But Buddhist," or "Free and Footloose." That would better capture its libertarian humanism.


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  4. At a Calvary Chapel Pastor's Conference, one of the speakers approached the podium, produced a surgical glove, blew it up, named it "Calvin. See the 5 points?", popped it with a pin, and gleefully declared victory with "so much for Calvin!"

    I'm in a Reformed Baptist Church now.

    If you don't mind, I'd like to read some more of your articles. There's something for me to learn here.